Since I started The Ancient Wisdom Project, I’ve become quite fond of religion. I’ve been impressed with the way religion tries to make sense of the world, and the ways it teaches you to live in the world.
Epicurus, however, was not impressed with the popular religion of his time. He believed that religion caused irrational fear and anxiety, as most of his contemporaries thought the gods were active in human affairs. In this type of environment, for example, it pays to not piss off Zeus, as he could strike you down with his lightning bolts (this is based on my cartoon knowledge of ancient Greek religion). Religion also causes much suffering for those who observe it.
Lucretius, an Epicurean poet, wrote this about Iphigenia, who was sacrificed by her father Agamemnon in order to please the gods so that his fleet may sail successfully to war against Troy. [Note: All Lucretius quotes pulled from The Art of Happiness]
Here I fear lest you perhaps suppose that you are being initiated into the rudiments of ungodly reason and are treading the path of evil. Quite the contrary! More often than not it is this religion which has spawned misdeeds both wicked and ungodly. Consider how at Aulis those worthies, the chosen captains of the Greeks, did brutally defile the altar of the virgin Diana with the blood of Iphigenia. The fillet encircling her virgin locks flowed evenly from both her cheeks, and her sorrowing father stood facing the altar . As she beheld the attendants hard by, cloaking their steel, and her townspeople shedding tears at sight of her, she became mute with terror and fell on her knees to the ground. Unhappy girl, it did not profit her at such a time that she had been the first to give the name “father” to King Agamemnon. For she was raised by men’s hands and led quivering to the altar, not to be attended by Hymen’s clarion song after the solemn rites of sacrifice but to fall foully to her murderous father, a victim unfouled at the very moment of wedlock— and all to provide a happy and prosperous departure for the fleet! So suasive of evil hath religion ever been! – [Lucr. 1.62–101]
Basically, Lucretius argues that Iphigenia died terrified and for nothing, all because of religion.
Epicurus did not dismiss the idea of gods altogether. He taught that the gods existed, but that they were not involved in human affairs and should be viewed as models of enlightened living.
As soon as the voice of reason rises from your [Epicurus’] godlike mind to enunciate the nature of things, the terror in the soul dissolves , the walls of the world fall back, and I see what comes to pass throughout the void. The holy godheads are manifested, and their tranquil thrones; the winds do not buffet them or clouds bestrew them with storms, nor snow, clotted by piercing frost, profane them with falling hoar. An ever cloudless ether arches them over, smiling with its amplitude of light. Nature supplies all their wants, nor does anything vex their peace of mind at any season. [Lucr. 3.14– 24]
There is however, a correct way to be religious. The correct way to be religious is to use the gods as means of contemplation.
It is not true religion to be seen turning with veiled head ever and anon toward an image of stone, or drawing nigh to every god’s altar, or prostrating oneself on the ground with suppliant hands before the holy shrines; nor is it piety to wet the altars with the abundant blood of beasts and to twine vow with vow. True religion is rather the power to contemplate nature with a mind set at peace. [Lucr. 5.1198– 1203]
Basically, all the rituals and worship associated with religion is nonsense. True religion is contemplation.
But if it’s true that the gods are not interested in human affairs, and that religion should be a purely contemplative affair, is there any real purpose to existence?
We only gave “purpose” to things after they were formed. Here, Lucretius asks how the gods could know to create or manipulate mankind unless Nature herself had already created mankind?
How was the model for creating things and the idea of mankind itself first implanted in the gods, so that they could know and envisage what they wanted to do, or in what manner did they ever become cognizant of the power of the primal bodies and of what they could bring about by interchanging their positions, if it was not Nature herself that provided the exemplar of creation? [Lucr. 5.181– 86]
So at this point, we know that Epicureans believed
- Gods exist
- They don’t interfere in human affairs, and therefore should not be feared or worshipped
- They are the paragon of peaceful living
- True religion lies in contemplating nature and the good life
- True religion is fundamentally pleasurable
- There is no inherent to purpose to existence
The Epicureans, or at least, Lucretius, is beginning to sound very Buddhist or Eastern in a sense. Because there is no purpose to existence, we should learn to minimize suffering and increase pleasure. Death is not something to be feared, indeed, it may be something to be welcomed.
I’m not sure I agree with the Epicurean view on religion. Based on my experiments, the religious rituals and worship seem worthwhile, if not always “pleasurable.” However, I do feel contemplation is an incredibly important part of religion. For example, during my Catholic month, I went through a portion of the Ignatian Spiritual Exercises which resulted in me volunteering at a homeless services organization, which is enjoyable.
I’m also not sure that religion-induced anxiety is necessarily a bad thing. During my Islam month, praying five times a day made me more cognizant of my arrogant attitude towards others. This knowledge made me “anxious” in the sense that I became aware of my own moral failings. But I think I’m better off for it. The combination of ritual and contemplation was powerful.
I would agree that taking religious teachings too literally can cause unwarranted suffering. It would be quite unpleasant to live life in fear of literal hell fire after death. But it’s quite reasonable to reflect on the idea that you would live in a metaphorical hell while still alive if you continue living in a selfish or immoral manner.
So is religion pleasurable? Sometimes, but I think the Epicureans miss the point that religion isn’t always supposed to be pleasurable, that if practiced correctly, it can lead to a life of great depth and meaning.